Make a Date With J.M.W. Turner

The Mystic Seaport Museum, in partnership with Tate, London, is hosting an exhibition devoted to the watercolors of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), one Britain’s greatest painters. Mystic Seaport Museum will be the only North American venue for the exhibition.

J.M.W. Turner, “Venice: Looking Across the Lagoon at Sunset,” 1840, watercolor on paper. Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 © Tate, London 2018

Running through February 23, 2020, the exhibition – curated by David Blayney Brown, Tate’s Manton Senior Curator of British Art 1790-1850 – will provide the unique opportunity to see key works spanning the entire career of the famous artist. The selection of about 90 paintings will provide a view into the evolution of the artist’s vision and creative process.

The exhibition at the Museum – divided into six thematic sections – focuses on the critical role played by watercolors in defining Turner’s deeply personal style.

The works have been selected from the vast legacy that comprises more than 30,000 works on paper, 300 oil paintings, and 280 sketchbooks, known as the “Turner Bequest,” donated to Great Britain after the artist’s death in 1851 and mostly conserved at Tate Britain. The bequest includes the entire body of works housed in the artist’s personal studio and produced over the years for his “own pleasure,” to cite the words used by the critic John Ruskin.

Turner was a lifelong watercolorist and fundamentally shaped what was understood to be possible within the medium during his lifetime and after. An inveterate traveler, Turner rarely left home without a rolled-up, loose-bound sketchbook, pencils, and a small traveling case of watercolors. These memories of journeys, emotions, and fragments of landscapes seen during his long stays abroad illustrate the development of Turner’s stylistic language focused on experimenting with the expressive potential of light and color.

J .M. W. Turner, “Scarborough,” c.1825, Watercolor and graphite on paper. Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 © Tate, London 2018

The intimate and personal character of the works on display will also provide an opportunity to explore the man himself, gaining an understanding of how the radical developments in Turner’s style anticipated trends of the late 19th century. From his love of seaside towns to his interest in depicting atmospheric English and Alpine landscapes, and his detailed study of domestic interiors and architectural reliefs, the artist devoted himself tirelessly to experimentation, particularly in watercolors, with a compositional and stylistic freedom and an innovative and surprising use of colors that led his peers to believe that Turner “appeared to paint with his eyes and nose as well as his hand.”

Deemed to be an extraordinary artist ever since his own time, Turner has had a profound and continuing influence on artists that continues to this day.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a major new publication edited by Nicholas Bell, the Museum’s senior vice president for Curatorial Affairs. Titled Conversations with Turner: The Watercolors, the book will bring together scholars of Turner’s art from around the world to engage with each other about the force of his paintings and why they continue to serve as a touchstone for Western culture.

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